There are two prominent David Robertsons in American life today. One is music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a gifted conductor who has performed all over the world and has frequently played Carnegie Hall. The other is the closer for the New York Yankees.
But the two have far more in common than you'd think, extending well beyond their names and into their career circumstances and approach. I spoke to each Robertson about the other, and came away with confirmation for my theory: conducting a major symphony orchestra and closing out a baseball game are remarkably similar.
The musician Robertson noted that even a preliminary scouting report of the two David Robertsons would yield some similarities.
"Like my namesake, I'm 5-foot-11," maestro Robertson said in a telephone interview last month. "I bat right-handed, and I throw right-handed as well."
That, alas, is where the baseball similarities end.
"I wasn't a pitcher growing up," Robertson said. "They wouldn't let me anywhere near the mound. I was always like, in the Peanuts cartoons? The kid way out in left field. It was the easiest place to put me. And I always saw, whenever there was a fly ball out to left field, I would always see my manager's face go in his hands, because it just meant a home run."
The pitcher Robertson, too, claimed ignorance when it came to the maestro's profession.
"I don't know anything about the music world," Robertson said at the start of our interview on Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field.
Plenty within the music world seem to know about him, however. The maestro first became aware of his major league namesake when he played frequent concerts in New York.
"That's where I first saw him play, in 2008," maestro said of pitcher. "And then, of course, I'd be working the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic, people would say, 'Hey, how's your arm?' So I started following him a little bit. And I couldn't have been more delighted when he was named the closer. Because, Mariano Rivera, you know..." Robertson gave a long laugh into the phone. "Been there!"
That's another area the two careers have linked up. Robertson, the pitcher, is being asked to take over for the greatest closer in baseball history. Robertson, the conductor, took the helm of the St. Louis Symphony, an orchestra brought to unexpected heights by Leonard Slatkin. The St. Louis Walk of Fame has a spot for Slatkin, while many of the iconic classical recordings of the 1980s came from Slatkin, recording with the orchestra.
"That's always tricky in baseball, because you get these legends," maestro Robertson said. "And the same thing is true in orchestras. We have a legendary timpani player in Rick Holmes, who was with the orchestra for 40+ years. And now we have Shannon Wood. And it's not to take anything away from Rick Holmes, who was amazing, but you get somebody new, and they start to build their own legend.
"I think the biggest difficulty when you first start out, that I had in St. Louis, and that anybody has that follows somebody well-known in any kind of role, and this is in business, in sports, in the arts, is that first, everybody wants to compare you. And to some extent, you just have to shut all of that out. Because no two people are really alike, and no two talents are exactly the same."
The maestro believes Robertson will do this pretty quickly, just as he did back in 2005 upon assuming control of the orchestra. The maestro has the orchestra recording again on the Nonesuch label. The pitcher has six saves and a 2.00 ERA so far as closer. And the pitcher has taken a similar tack in trying to focus on his own work, rather than what came before him.
"I hope so," pitcher Robertson said. "I'll hopefully be successful in my career, and not be compared to Mo. I mean, I'm obviously not Mariano. We throw different ways. But as far as the pressure on the job, I try not to think about it that way. I'm doing the same thing I've done the past six years, which is to come in and get three outs. It's just a different three outs. And that's the only thing that ever changed for me."
Both came with significant resumes suggesting they'd succeed. In the pitcher's case, excelling in a setup role while striking out 11.7 per nine should have given the Yankees plenty of confidence in him. As for the conductor, following successful tenures with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and others, he completed the closest thing, musically, to a save possible in the music world.
In 2002, the St. Louis Symphony was about to perform at Carnegie Hall under then-director Hans Vonk. Just days before the concert, health problems forced Vonk to withdraw. Robertson was the last-minute substitution. I asked him whether he felt like a closer, entering with men on base.
"What's interesting is, you do kind of feel that way," Robertson said. "You haven't had the time, necessarily, to warm up much in the bullpen, other than a quick little rehearsal. And of course, when I did that with the orchestra, I'd only interacted once before with the orchestra, three years earlier, for a total of five days."
But the concert was a massive success, well-reviewed, the kind of moment that helped Robertson eventually earn the full-time gig in St. Louis. That didn't mean Robertson was free of the Slatkin legacy, at least not immediately. But having the support of the predecessor helps. And the maestro has experienced something similar to Rivera passing the torch to Robertson, as happened this spring in Panama.
"I was very pleased that Leonard came back and conducted in some of my early seasons," Robertson said. "So it's nice to have that kind of ongoing relationship with somebody. That feeds the admiration, the reverence that people have for somebody like that."
Exactly how you do that, according to both Robertsons, is simply stick to the task at hand.
"Just do my job as best I can," the pitcher said. "That is the way I look at it. I'm not trying to start a legacy. I'm just trying to help us win ballgames."
"So what you need to do is just focus on what you can do," the maestro said. "I mean, there's a grace in Rivera's pitching that's immaculate. And you see, particularly at the end of the games, it was like one of the Yankee signatures. At the same time, the way that D-Rob follows through with the pitch, the beauty of the complete swing of the whole body, is something that is so awesome to watch. Where the ball leaves his hand, and the leg coming 'round-it's this total organic thing that happens from the windup to the moment the ball leaves. That's something that I could just imagine in several years, that is thought of as a signature associated with his team."
As for the other signature of Robertson's, his entrance music, don't expect that to change anytime soon. Unlike "Enter Sandman," Rivera's tune, Robertson enters and warms up to "Sweet Home Alabama," which he reiterated to me reminds him of home. I had suggested the opening to Mahler's fifth symphony, but Robertson the conductor said he'd be worried "to pitch in c-sharp minor."
Instead, if David Robertson the music director entered a baseball game in a save situation, he said he'd do so to Leoš Janáček, "each one of those modulatory harmony changes leading to a shutout at quick finish for the other team."
So I thought it only reasonable to see what the pitcher thought of the maestro's choice. He laughed at the suggestion, but listened intently as I hit play on my Ipad, imagining a pitcher, perhaps his namesake, entering as the music played. He gamely, humbly entered the world of music criticism.
"Like I said, I don't know a lot about music," Robertson said. "But I could see it playing during a scene in a Western movie. Where they're riding off to go to a battle or something. Or coming out of one."
So Robertson the pitcher endorsed the maestro's entrance music (though he remains loyal to his own). And the conductor, who invoked the pitcher at the St. Louis Symphony's New Years' Eve concert, seemed to think David Robertson the pitcher wouldn't have to wait long to be a household name for the Yankees.
"All you have to really do is pitch a couple of fantastic games, or give a couple of really great concerts, and people say, 'Well, you know, that was that, but this is looking pretty good!", Robertson said. "So that is all I can wish for my homonym."